Undrafted rookies got a raw deal last year. The pandemic made attaining NFL aspirations overwhelmingly hard, stealing the offseason program and preseason games where longshots earn roster spots.
There was little chance to impress. Very few, therefore, actually made the cut.
"You could make a strong argument that last year's undrafted free agent class, they missed out on a lot of opportunities," Falcons head coach Arthur Smith said. "[Teams] kind of went with what they had. Obviously the rosters shrunk down initially in training camp, and you didn't have any live games to evaluate them on."
That's a tough break that makes it tough to break through. This year's undrafted free agents have more of a level playing field. It'll be tough to to make a squad but the opportunity is there.
There's no guarantee the Falcons even keep one on their original 53-man roster. They could also end up with the few, and/or sign some to the practice squad and have them contribute down the road. The undrafted players in camp will all be part of the Falcons evaluation process while trying to, as GM Terry Fontenot puts it, find the right 53 guys.
We'll take a keep an eye on the undrafted players at Atlanta Falcons AT&T Training Camp in this regular series, identifying standout talents and how they're progressing throughout the summer.
- Deion Jones hopes to pick up where he left off attacking quarterbacks
- Olamide Zaccheaus proving 'dependable' while battling for No. 3 receiver spot
- Practice report: Cordarrelle Patterson's speed, versatility prove a dangerous combo
- Bair Mail: On Terry Fontenot, retooling (not rebuilding) and the state of the Falcons roster
- More info on AT&T Training camp: https://www.atlantafalcons.com/schedule/event-calendar/att-training-camp
The first installment focuses on the running backs.
This isn't just to keep featured backs healthy.
There's a strong possibility one of them makes the squad. Mike Davis, Cordarrelle Patterson, Qadree Ollison and fullback Keith Smith should make the final roster. The Falcons could easily carry five rushers, leaving a crack for Hawkins or Huntley to earn a spot. There should be a practice squad opening for one at the very least.
Arthur Smith has praised both players for quality work in camp.
"Those young guys, Little Hawk,' -- we've got two J. Hawkins, Jaylinn and Javian, so, we call [Javian] Little Hawk -- with Little Hawk and Caleb, they're competing. They're doing good things and making progress every day."
Hawkins isn't a bulkier power runner like the others in his position group, and bringing a different style may work to his advantage. The 5-foot-9, 195-pound slasher has shown solid elusiveness, using great speed well in open space. The Louisville product has made quite a few impressive plays in camp as he works to separate himself. His college career was pretty short, but he had a school record 1,525 rushing yards in 2019, his only active season. He also had nine touchdowns and averaging a whopping 5.8 yards per carry with the Cardinals.
At 5-10, 229 pounds, Huntley is more of a downhill runner. The Ball State product has been solid as well and could prove tough to bring down during games with live tackling. He was excellent in college, averaging 5.0 yards per carry over his career.
It seems like Hawkins has a leg up at this point, but there's plenty of time remaining for the competition to play out.
It will be important for both guys to perform well in preseason games, where they get tons of work. That's a positive for several reasons. They can impress the Falcons staff – that's their primary objective – or put out good tape for other teams to evaluate. Either way, good play could help land a job.
We'll keep an eye on these two moving forward, and evaluate other standout undrafted players as we move through training toward the 53-man roster cut.
Take a look at the best images of the wide receivers and more during Day 6 of 2021 AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp.